SEC Football Previews and Picks

Hello, I’m Bird and I’ll be your SEC Blogger! I really hate it when servers greet you that way at a restaurant. So why not begin this, new, weekly column in such a manner? Does that make sense? No, but neither does picking SEC football at this juncture. Being that this is my initial SEC blog, I thought I would divulge my spring divisional picks and crown a winner of the SEC Championship Game. I will also take a look at the most intriguing intersectional match-ups involving teams in the Southeastern Conference for the 2016 season. I love predictions and speculation on what lies ahead for us college football fanatics.

So here we go! Mind you, this is only April and the landscape can change, sometimes dramatically, by September. We will take another look at it when the season draws much closer and freshmen arrive on campus. Injuries, suspensions, and unforeseen events can also alter our perceptions over the next five months.

East

Tennessee (No surprise here. Most forecasters will probably lean in this direction.)
Georgia (I’m basing this on the winner of the World’s Largest…, no we can’t say that. Ok, the Jacksonville Drunk Fest).
Florida (Will lose to both the Vols and Dawgs and they need a quarterback.)
Missouri (A very good defense, per usual, and new head Coach, Barry Odom, will pull an upset or two out of his pocket.)
Kentucky (The Wildcats continue to improve and will make a bowl.)
Vanderbilt (Derek Mason will also see improvement in the monumental task he finds himself in.)
South Carolina (Will Muschamp wasn’t very good at Florida or Auburn and will not be at USC East either.)
West

Alabama (Sigh. As long as Nick Saban is at the helm in Tuscaloosa, it’s foolish to call it any other way.)
Ole Miss (Hugh Freeze is doing a remarkable job in Oxford. Two-in-a-row against Saban. Also remarkable. Chad Kelly returns.)
LSU ( Leave Les alone! He’s 112 and 32!!!)
Auburn (The Tigers will be much improved but I don’t know how this will reflect in their overall record. They absolutely must find a quarterback.)
Arkansas (Bret Bielema fields another good team but the loss of Brandon Allen, Alex Collins and others will hurt.)
Texas A&M (The turmoil in College Station mounts.)
Mississippi State (Dak Prescott is long gone. Dan Mullen has built the Bulldogs into a good program but they’re in the SEC West.)
Who will win the SEC Championship Game on December 3? The University of Tennessee will upset the University of Alabama… in Knoxville on what actually will be the Third Saturday in October in 2016. The Crimson Tide will defeat the Vols in the Georgia Dome to, once again, capture the SEC crown.

And now, the intersectional match-ups:

Alabama vs. USC West (Sept. 3)
This one has fans all over the country chomping-at-the-bit for some foot-damn-ball and the Lane Kiffin storyline makes it even more compelling. It will be played in Jerry World. Does Bama play a game there every season, or is it just me?

Auburn vs. Clemson (Sept. 3)
An enormous opportunity for Gus Malzahn’s felines to take a quantum leap in the eyes of the football world with what is, possibly, the number one team in the country coming to Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Georgia vs. North Carolina (Sept. 3)
Larry Fedora had this thing rolling until undermanned Baylor rushed for a new bowl record of 645 yards in the Russell Athletic tilt. The Bears won 49-38 but it wasn’t that close. This is the Chick-fil-a Kickoff Game in Hotlanta.

LSU vs. Wisconsin (Sept. 3)
From Lambeau Field in Green Bay! How much fun will that be? Should be a donnybrook! You need this, Les. The critics could be howling if you lose. But it’s not a conference game.

Missouri vs. West Virginia (Sept. 3)
In Morgantown. Great chance for Odom to get some positive press and whet the appetite of the Tiger faithful.

Texas A&M vs. UCLA (Sept. 3)
Jim Mora, Jr. brings his Bruins into College Station. Kevin Sumlin could, at least temporarily, quell the storm in Aggieland with a victory.

Ole Miss vs. Florida State (Sept. 5)
The Labor Day special. A huge game with far-reaching national implications and two highly-ranked teams. It will be played in Orlando. I smell a wide-open affair.

Arkansas vs. TCU (Sept. 10)
The Hawgs will be traveling to Ft. Worth for a monster showdown in Cowtown. They will win their opener, the previous week, against LA Tech. This one will be just a bit more demanding. It’s hard to see them coming away with a win.

Tennessee vs. Virginia Tech (Sept. 10)
At the Bristol Motor Speedway in the tri-city area of Eastern Tennessee. The place holds 160,000. It will be strange to not see Frank Beamer patrolling the sideline of the Hokies. Maybe Butch Jones can get people’s minds off the off-the-field issues surrounding the program.

Vanderbilt vs. Georgia Tech (Sept. 17)
The Dores will make the trip to Atlanta in a game both schools have to think they can win. This could result in a very good ball game.

Mississippi State vs. Brigham Young (Oct. 15)
The Bulldogs travel to Provo, Utah for a mid-season clash with the Cougars. They play Auburn the prior week in StarkVegas and could be beat up both physically and emotionally.

Now I’ve gotten myself revved up for some SEC Football! Hey, it’s only 150 days until Vanderbilt and South Carolina tee it up in Nashville!

E-mail Bird at bird [dot] lecroy [at] campuspressbox [dot] com or follow him on Twitter @Autull.

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Auburn: Road Trips, Part One – Austin

Road Trip! We’ve all been there. Whether it’s impromptu or somewhere in the more distant future when further planning is required, road trips are fun, a lot of fun.

Seeing as how spring football practice is in full swing, Auburn will have their first ‘for real’ scrimmage Saturday, our thoughts may be turning to the upcoming 2016 regular season and planning for any road trips we might take this fall.

The only visit to an opponent’s venue for the LeCroy’s, this autumn, will be Oxford, Mississippi for a game with the Ole Miss Rebels. This will be our ninth Auburn versus Ole Miss road test and one of those, 1990, was in Jackson. Auburn, as did many other SEC schools, used to play both Ole Miss and Mississippi State in Jackson’s Memorial Stadium. The facility held more people and was better suited for large crowds than either Starkville (Vaught-Hemmingway Stadium) or Oxford (Davis Wade Stadium). That has changed. The two rivalries are now played on the school’s campuses and have since 1992 when Auburn went into Oxford and got pummeled by the Black Bears, uhhhh Rebels.

It was my son, Luke, and I who attended that ’92 game as it was in 1990, ’96, ’98 and 2000. The remainder of the Ole Miss games were me and Paul (my nickname for my wife, Melodye) except for one. Her moniker stems from the Willie Nelson tune, Me and Paul.

Another note before we move on. Since 2002 our trips to Ole Miss games have landed us in Memphis and we commute to Oxford. Ah yes! The land of BBQ and blues, Elvis, Stax and Sun Records.

Ok, road trips. All this talk caused me to reflect on these excursions and I began to question myself as to which trips have been my favorites. Well, that’s tough because so many of them have been quite memorable. I tried to narrow it down to my three most enjoyable.

And here we go! In chronological order and this does not include bowl games. We’ve been down that road.

Texas 1991

We were living in Sumner County, Tennessee at the time and Austin was over 900 miles from our home which was about twenty minutes from NashVegas. It was, approximately, a fourteen-hour drive.

This was one of those father and son trips.

Luke and I left Tennessee on a Thursday night after school and work. We spent the night in West Memphis, Arkansas and West Memphis is not an overly desirable destination for travelers. Suffice it to say we were out of there early and headed for the Lone Star State. We ate lunch at a KFC and Luke squirted hot sauce, from one of those plastic packets you tear open, in his eye. So sorry, buddy. We did the best we could to flush his eye out and we pressed on down I-35 south which would take us on in to the state capital of Texas.

Just north of Waco lies the sleepy little community of Abbot, TX. Does anybody know the significance of Abbott? Raise your hands! I don’t see any hands so I’ll fill you in. It’s the place where the aforementioned Willie Nelson was raised by his grandparents. Abbott has a population of around three-hundred. Not a great deal to see there, but if you are a huge Willie fan, which I obviously am, then it warrants a run through.

Somewhere between Waco and Austin we began to see advertisements for what appeared to be an interesting little place. The key to getting us off the road and into their establishment was homemade beef jerky. I don’t remember the name of the place but I do remember sitting on their front porch with my, then, thirteen-year-old son and gnawing on the best jerky I had ever eaten. It was a warm and windy afternoon there among the mesquite and Texas live oaks. It also was one of those special times you look back on wistfully as a tear forms in your eye.

We finally arrived at the DoubleTree Hotel on the north side of Austin in the very late afternoon. If you’ve never been to Austin, and you should make a point to go there, everything is accessed by frontage roads. I blew by the DoubleTree, on first take, and had to navigate the frontage road on the east side of I-35, but we did it without much of a struggle.

As Luke and I stood there, waiting to check-in, we noticed some very large young men garbed in Texas Longhorn warm-up suits. It turns out that the Texas football team was lodging at the same hotel as we were. Well how about that? David McWilliams was the Longhorn coach in ’91. I spotted him, cigar in tow, as he exited his ride which dropped him off in the portico in front of the hotel.

My heart began to beat a bit more rapidly. Big time intersectional college football was only about twenty-four hours away. War Damn Eagle!

Pappdeaux Seafood Kitchen was next door to the hotel. Neither of us had ever eaten at one. The hotel staff gave it a strong recommendation and we had dessert there that evening after some BBQ brisket at The County Line restaurant. We went back to Pappadeaux’s the following night after the ball game. Great recommendation DoubleTree staff!

Saturday! It’s now countdown to kickoff!

After coffee and pastries, it’s off on a driving tour of the metro area, the mall, and some Tex-Mex fare. There were some really brightly-colored, interesting low rider trucks at the mall. The food was good and the ride around the outskirts of the city was a most pleasant one. We ran into some fellow Auburn fans at the Tex-Mex restaurant and one of them stated that he would become a Texas fan if he wasn’t committed to the Tigers. The hospitality was excellent out there.

Before long it was time to get back to the hotel for some “tailgating” at the outdoors bar and then catch a shuttle to Texas Memorial Stadium.

Fifteenth-ranked Auburn brought a 2-0 record into the game against a Texas team that was 0-1. A sellout crowd of 77,809 was in attendance and the game was televised by ESPN. Luke and I were seated with the Auburn contingent in the north end zone. We were set back a back a ways from the field as there was a large track that circled the artificial surface.

One of the highlights of the weekend was when the Texas fans and players stood and sang “The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You”. Chills, even today. Wow! To say we were primed for the kickoff would be an understatement.

Auburn took the opening kickoff and almost ran it back all the way. Stan White hit Victor Hall on a 25-yard touchdown pass and the Tigers were up 7-0 with only 49 seconds elapsed on the clock. Corey Barlow returned a pass interception for a touchdown with 3:07 still remaining in the first quarter and AU fans were giddy. Unfortunately, that would be all the points the Tigers would score that evening. Fortunately, they hung on with some great defense, and won the game, 14-10.

The play that sticks out most to me was an absolutely brutal hit Auburn defensive back Fred Smith put on one of the Longhorns. Mercy!

Auburn was ranked number 13 after the game. They went to Knoxville the next week and were beaten by the Tennessee Vols, 30-21. It was the first of six losses and their nine-year steak of winning seasons came to a close. It was a disappointing year.

The one thing that stays with me from that night in Knoxville was a drunk Tennessee coed making a point to walk up to our post-game tailgate and telling a tired old joke. “What did the Auburn graduate say to the Tennessee graduate? Do you want fries with that?” The wound was quite fresh and I was not able to hold my tongue. I won’t repeat here what I said but I remain embarrassed by it to this day. Moral of the story? Watch your tongue. What’s said is said. You cannot take it back. Sigh.

Well folks, that is it for part one of this three-part series on road trips. Next up, in April, we’ll take a spin to Baton Rouge and the Auburn-LSU game of 1997.

2014 SEC West Division Champions: The Auburn Tigers

When one begins a discussion of the SEC West it often begins with Alabama. The Crimson Tide has proven their worth over the past seven seasons under head coach Nick Saban. Everyone knows what they have accomplished and those accomplishments have been extremely impressive. They don’t rebuild, they reload. The majority of pundits and prognosticators are, once again, picking Alabama to win the West. That’s fair.

Any debate over who will win the West has to include LSU. The Tigers have won the division three times since Les Miles arrived in the Red Stick back in 2005. They won the BCS National Championship in 2007 in spite of losing two games. LSU has lost a ton of talent to the NFL over the past few years. They lost ELEVEN underclassmen just last year to THE LEAGUE. LSU also just reloads and they have a lot of talent, per usual, but they have to replace their quarterback and fill many other slots as well. This does not appear to be THE year for the Bayou Bengals.

Texas A&M exploded on the SEC scene in 2012 with Johnny Manziel behind center. The Aggies had two very good seasons with Johnny Football as the signal caller but Kevin Sumlin’s team could not capture a division title. They will not in 2014 either.

The two Mississippis, Ole Miss and State, are receiving a lot of platitudes for the coming campaign. They both do appear to have solid teams. But the fact remains that Ole Miss has never won the West and State has only won it once and that was back in 1998. Both teams should make some noise this season and could pull a couple of upsets to make the Wild West just that, but neither will take home the crown. Hugh Freeze and Dan Mullen will have to continue to build those programs in order to have a serious chance at a title.

Arkansas. The Razorbacks play what coach Bret Bielema refers to as “Normal American Football”. That phrase is a bit of a head scratcher as many of us are not sure just what the phrase means. Bielema is building a foundation in Fayetteville and the Hawgs will be a better football team in 2014 but they absolutely will not take the West.

That brings us to Auburn. The Tigers will win the SEC West in 2014.

My reasons for picking Auburn to go to Atlanta in December are plenteous and not altogether without bias. But hey, all of us have our prejudices and presumptions, and we often wear our allegiances on our sleeves. Good… let us begin.

Without boring you with black and white statistics that you can find anywhere, I’m going to give you my three primary reasons why I think Auburn will come out on top in the West.

MOTIVATION

This most unlikely aggregation came within 13 seconds of winning the BCS National Championship Game in Pasadena last winter. How many people thought that would happen? I think the answer is somewhere near zero. Not even the most blindly optimistic of us even considered that a possibility.

Coming up just shy of a crystal football did not deflate these Tigers. All it did was instill a deep hunger to return to the title game. This is one motivated football team and they are on a mission… believe me. The 2014 edition of the Tigers is a more experienced, and a more talented football team than it was in 2013. They have more quality depth.

In essence Auburn will have a better team than it had last season and that spells trouble for the rest of the SEC, and for the entire college football landscape.

MARSHALL

Now this is where it truly begins to get scary. As good as Nick Marshall was last season, he will be much improved for the 2014 campaign.

Marshall is a freakish athlete with a raging inferno of a desire to win. He is brilliant and deft in commandeering this offense, and he is a magician in executing the zone read. Now that he has had a full season, off season, a spring, and a summer to further grasp the offense, and polish his passing skills, there is no reason to think he will not be the best quarterback in the SEC.

Finally, Nick Marshall could emerge as a bona fide Heisman candidate and could very well be Auburn’s fourth player to bring home that hardware.

MALZAHN

The final, and possibly the most integral, piece to Auburn’s return to the Georgia Dome in early December is its head coach… Gus Malzahn.

Malzahn is, arguably, the best game day tactician in college football today. But as good as he is on football Saturdays, his attention to detail in practices, his relentless work ethic, and his will to win, combine to make him a guy that is extremely hard to beat.

When you take all of the above factors and combine them with a coaching staff that is exceptional, you have a formula that will lead the 2014 Auburn Tigers to Atlanta and, yes, beyond.

Auburn vs. Ole Miss: Glancing Back and Peering Forward

My first recollection of an Auburn vs. Ole Miss game is the Liberty Bowl of 1965. The two teams had not met since 1953. This was the first time the Liberty Bowl was played in Memphis. It was held in Philadelphia from it’s inception in 1959 through the 1963 season. In 1964 the game was played in Atlantic City.

Ole Miss escaped that 1965 game with a 13-7 win. Tailback Tom Bryan scored Auburn’s only touchdown on a 44-yard scamper. He was named the game’s Most Valuable Player and its Outstanding Offensive Back. The Tigers’ Robert Fulghum was selected as the Outstanding Defensive Back.

IMG_23831973 was the season that I attended my initial Auburn-Ole Miss brawl. And that it was, a defensive battle.

The game took place on October 6th of that year. That was the day old Cliff Hare Stadium was dedicated as Jordan- Hare Stadium.

Coach Jordan was, of course, humble in his receiving this honor and his Tigers responded with a 14-7 victory.

Halfback Rick Neel broke a 7-7 tie with a 33-yard touchdown burst with just over one minute remaining in the game.

One of the most exciting games of the series occurred on January 2, 1971 in the Gator Bowl. Auburn was led by junior quarterback, Pat Sullivan. Ole Miss also had a decent signal caller heading up their offense that day. His name was Archie Manning.

Auburn broke out of the gates with a vengeance by rolling to a 21-0 lead before the Rebels roared back to cut the lead to 21-14 at halftime.

The teams battled fiercely for the remainder of the game, several Gator Bowl stats were broken, with Auburn finally securing a 35-28 win.

And, probably, THE most exciting game of the series took place in Oxford in 2014. Click below:
Now, for those of you who love numbers and history, here are some more. The last six Auburn coaches’ records versus Ole Miss:

Shug Jordan, 4-3

Doug Barfield, 2-0

Pat Dye, 4-1

Terry Bowden, 6-0

Tommy Tuberville, 7-3

Gene Chizik, 3-1

Gus Malzahn, 2-0

The meetings between the two schools had been sporadic until divisions were created in 1992. Auburn leads the series with a 29-10-0 record against the Rebels.

The first time the schools met on the gridiron was in Birmingham in 1928 with the Tigers taking the win, 19-0.

The largest margin of victory came in 1985 when Bo Jackson ran for 240 yards on 38 carries to lead Auburn to a 41-0 victory.

The longest winning streak stands at nine, with Auburn taking games interspersed between 1971-1991.

Auburn vs. Ole Miss 2015

Last year’s contest was an elimination game, of sorts, and the same holds true for Ole Miss this year. The Rebs control their own destiny but if they lose they can more-than-likely kiss any chance to win the SEC West goodbye.

The 2015 Auburn Tiger football season is at a critical juncture. The same could have been, and probably was, said about last Saturday’s tough loss in Fayetteville. It rings ever more true with each succeeding game.

If Auburn fails to win, then any chance of a very good bowl game will disappear with the breeze which will waft away from Jordan-Hare Stadium around mid-afternoon this coming Saturday.

IMG_2329The Rebels had an impressive, 23-3, win against Texas A&M last Saturday night at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.

Quarterback Chad Kelly had a big night throwing for 241 yards and two touchdowns. Laquon Treadwell was on the receiving end of five of those passes. They totaled 102 yards.

Laremy Tunsil, star left tackle on the Ole Miss O line, returned to the lineup after completing a seven-game NCAA suspension for receiving illegal benefits. It appeared to have rejuvenated their ground attack as they rushed for 230 yards. They only ran for 40 yards the week before at Memphis.

I’m not going to rehash the details of Auburn’s excruciating loss, in four overtimes, at Arkansas last week. If the Tigers hadn’t dropped eight passes and two interceptions it would have been, truly, a different story. Hey! It would have been a different story if Tiger receivers had caught only HALF of those whiffs. SIGH.

But take heart Auburn fans! Redshirt freshman quarterback, Sean White, is getting better each week and it appears he could be a star for the Tigers sooner than later.

Here is a look at some of his numbers.

White completed 19 of 32 passes, in the Arkansas game, for 254 yards and zero interceptions. Add back only half of the eight drops and you have a completion percentage of .719, and many, many more yards. Probably well over 300 and, possibly near 400.

On the season he has thrown 97 passes and completed 62 for 805 yards. That’s over 200 yards per game. He has one interception. That came in the Miss State game.

And hopefully it’s going to get even better for the young QB.

Now, forget the numbers. The thing that impresses me most about Sean is his competitive spirit, his confidence, and his leadership. The kid LOVES to play and he gives it 110%.

He comin’!

Peyton Barber. Another baller. The guy really has a nose for the end zone. He found it four times against the Razorbacks. And he’s rushing for 110 yards per game.

And… AND… Carl Lawson practiced for the first time Tuesday! Will he play Saturday? We don’t know yet, but that is very encouraging!

Also, Auburn’s defense played better. After garnering 14 first quarter points, Arkansas scored only 10 points in the last three quarters of regulation play.

If defensive coordinator, Will Muschamp, can get similar results as those this Saturday, the Tigers will have a solid chance at winning the football game.

So, Auburn is playing to get better. They’re playing for pride. They’re playing for the opportunity to continue toward a 9-3 regular season record and a very good bowl game.

Ole Miss is playing for an opportunity to continue toward an SEC West Championship and, potentially, a College Football Playoff berth.

This is a HUGE game for both teams. A loss, for either squad, effectively ends the realization of lofty post-season goals.

Auburn has not committed a turnover in its past three games. That is a very good thing. If the Tigers can again protect the football, improve on both offense and defense, and get its expected high level of play from special teams, they have a good chance to win.

This game should be a Battle Royale. I expect Auburn and Ole Miss to come out breathing fire and leave everything on the field.IMG_0546

It should come down to the fourth quarter and whoever wants it most should win.

Here’s how I see it.

Ole Miss, trailing 21-20 late, gets a long TD pass from Kelly to Treadwell. 27-21, Black Bears.

Auburn, in an effort to salvage its season, gets a kickoff return of 87 yards from Rudy Ford. This puts the ball at the Rebel 13.

White hits Kamryn Pettway, coming out of the backfield, for a 12-yard gain.

Peyton Barber hammers it in from the one. The PAT is good. Auburn up.

Blake Countess then intercepts a late pass from Kelly and Auburn holds on for a 28-27 win!

You heard it here first!

Before He Was “The Head Ball Coach”

It was Saturday, October 30, 1965. And it was a beautiful day for football! My father, mother and I were on our way from Lower Alabama to the Plains of Auburn for a homecoming game that matched our Tigers with the Florida Gators.IMG_2355

The visitors were a heavy favorite. They were bringing an impressive 4-1 record into the tilt, while the home team, with losses to Baylor, Georgia Tech, and Southern Mississippi, was really struggling that year at 2-3-1.

The contingent from Gainesville, Florida was lead by a brash young kid from Johnson City, Tennessee. His name was Steven Orr Spurrier.

This was the first game ever televised from, what was then, Cliff Hare Stadium. It would later be re-named Jordan-Hare Stadium for, then, legendary head coach Ralph “Shug” Jordan.

Coach Jordan was given to referring to the Gator quarterback as “Steve Superior”.

“Superior” had led his team to wins over non-conference foes Northwestern and North Carolina State. They sported SEC victories over LSU and Ole Miss. Their lone setback came at the hands of the Mississippi State Bulldogs.

When the LeCroy clan finally made it to Auburn, it seemed like it took an eternity to get there, they headed over to the home of Nelle and Bill Mims, my aunt and uncle. Aunt Nelle was my mother’s sister. Uncle Bill was retired from the Georgia-Pacific railroad. They had moved to “the loveliest village” where he now had a job with Buildings and Grounds at Auburn University.

Uncle Bill quipped to my father that he might have to drive the jeep that would carry the ABC television camera up and down the home sideline as this was an altogether new venture for the school.

I thought that would be the greatest thing in the world! Would I be allowed to ride in the jeep? As it turns out, this did not come to pass, but that was okay. There were some big fish to fry later that day.

And what a day it turned out to be!

The visiting Gators led the home underdog Tigers 10-0 at the half. Junior quarterback, Spurrier, had thrown a 21-yard touchdown pass to Jack Harper and their kicker, Wayne Barfield, booted a 26-yard field goal. The sellout crowd, of 45,000, was dismayed but not daunted.

The Tigers regrouped at the break. And it turned out to be a tough second half for the young quarterback from the mountains of East Tennessee. Auburn middle linebacker, Bill Cody, intercepted a Spurrier pass and returned it for 29 yards and a touchdown. Spurrier also fumbled at the Florida 10, in the fourth quarter, and it rolled into the end zone. Cody was also the recipient of this snafu that gave Auburn an insurmountable lead.IMG_2358

The Tigers scored 28 unanswered points in that second half. Spurrier threw a late TD pass to Charlie Casey, which mattered little, and Auburn upset the Gators, 28-17.

It was a big win for the home team and a hard learning experience for the tough, talented and talkative young Gator QB.

October 29, 1966 was a horse of a different color.

Florida was celebrating homecoming this time around.

60,000 fans had jammed Florida Field, which was later dubbed “The Swamp” by an alumnus who had returned to coach the Gators in 1990 ;).

Florida was undefeated and Steve “Superior” was their senior quarterback. They also had designs on an SEC Championship, a National Championship, and a Heisman Trophy for their team leader.

The game turned out to be a see-saw battle which went down to the wire.

Auburn took the opening kickoff and Larry Ellis returned it 89 yards for a touchdown.

It’s on!!!

Florida retaliated with a 10-yard TD pass from Spurrier to Richard Trapp. They also scored on a 2-yard TD run.

Auburn stunned the old Gator grads with a 90-yard fumble return and added a 30-yard field goal by Jimmy “Rattlesnake” Jones before halftime. They took a 17-13 lead into the dressing room. The Tigers opened the second half scoring with a 27-yard field goal.

Florida immediately tied it when Larry Smith scored a TD from two-yards out. It was 20-20.

Spurrier put the home team on top with 2-yard sneak, early in the fourth quarter, but Auburn quarterback, Larry Blakeney ran one in from the three after Yearout recovered yet another fumble at the Gator 16.

The game was tied, 27-27.

Spurrier then began to engineer a march toward the Tiger goal line, but the drive was stopped when the Gator field general was called for an intentional grounding penalty.

It was now fourth down with just over two minutes remaining in the game and Florida at the Auburn 26 yard-line.

A field goal attempt would be 40 yards and that was outside the comfort zone of the Gator’s regular placekicker.

Spurrier had kicked 40-yard field goals in practice and begged Florida head coach, Ray Graves, to give him a shot at it.IMG_2359

He did.

You can imagine what happened. It was like something out a sports novel for young kids, or maybe the popular AMC TV show, Friday Night Lights.

Yes, Steve Spurrier nailed the field goal, with 2:12 remaining, Florida captured very hard-fought 30-27 win and, as most of you know, Spurrier went on to take home the Heisman Trophy.

Those are my first memories of Steve Spurrier, or “Superior”, and his heroics on the gridiron.

You know the rest of the story. I don’t need to recount it for you here, yet again.

Many, many tales of championships he won at Duke and Florida have “swamped” television, newspapers, and social media over the past week. And you know of his unprecedented success at the University of South Carolina, from which he recently resigned. You also know of his failure to generate a winner on the NFL level with the Washington Redskins.

I’ll never forget the great upset wins Auburn had over number one ranked Gator squads in 1993, ’94, and 2001. But those were the ONLY three wins my Tigers were able to generate vs. the “evil genius” during his tenure at Florida. Auburn’s final record stood at 3-10 against Spurrier and the Gators.

OUCH!

IMG_2357

There are many fan bases that “Darth Visor” has rubbed the wrong way over the years. Cough cough… Georgia and Tennessee.

But I have always really liked him and have truly enjoyed following the journey of Steven Orr Spurrier. My son and I have had numerous conversations in “Spurrier Speak”. They would begin something like, “Well, we found out nobody had ever scored fifty points on Georgia in Athens before, so we thought we’d try that!”

Priceless!

I laugh when I think about it and about him.

I know you’ve probably also read many of Spurrier’s famous quotes from over the years. I’ll leave you with, possibly,one my favorites. It’s from the lips of the only Heisman winner he coached, Danny Wuerffel. This was after Wuerffel had thrown a costly interception. He then apologized for the turnover.

Spurrier replied, “Danny, it’s not your fault, it’s my fault for putting you in the game.”

So here’s to the “Head Ball Coach”!

May he not, “Go gentle into that good night.”

Tailgating Tales

First of all, let me say this… I LOVE tailgating! Who doesn’t? And I truly love tailgating prior to home games in Auburn. It’s a great way to get “ready” for the game. It’s a time to eat, drink, and socialize. It’s a time to discuss your team’s game and also to watch other teams play, before and after, your game. In a nutshell, it’s a whole lot of fun!

With that in mind, let’s get right to it. I’m going to take a look back at three of my most memorable tailgating experiences that I’ve enjoyed on the road. I will do this chronologically.

Cal vs. Stanford – 1986

Aha! Fooled you didn’t I? If you know me at all, you were probably thinking, “Now which Auburn game is Bird going to mention first?”DSC02503

Well, we didn’t really begin getting into tailgating until the Pat Dye era on the Plains. And by the time this was in full swing our family had moved to the Bay Area of California where I was a seminary student and campus minister at The University of California at Berkeley.

The ‘Big Game’, as it is known, was played in Berkeley that year. Our whole family attended the game. That included my wife, Melodye, our son, Luke, and our daughter, Leah. Luke was eight and Leah was three. I won’t tell you how old I was. You can do the math.

As we strolled across the famed Berkeley campus, the thing that struck me was the elegance of the tailgates. There were beautiful flowers in lovely vases, linen tablecloths, china and flatware. Now this wasn’t the case at all the sites but there was an unusual amount of that sort of setup to my mind.

And, of course, we were just about a 35-45 minute drive from Napa Valley and there were some fine wines and champagnes being poured. Us? We ate Blondie’s pizza and drank draft beer. It’s a long way from Wilcox County, Alabama to Northern California folks. But we were eager to learn!

And, by the way, the once beaten Stanford Cardinal (I REALLY want to put an “s” at the end of their name) was upset by the ONE WIN Cal Bears.

Dartmouth vs. Fordham – 1994

I was in my second year as a AAA Inspector and had accepted an out-of-territory assignment to New England. I was to do some work in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. It was early the first day of October and I had been there for about a week.

After spending the night at The Inn on Golden Pond, yes THAT Golden Pond, on Wednesday 9/28, I found myself at a small motel somewhere in that area on Thursday night. Auburn was playing Kentucky that evening and I called a couple of places to make sure I located a spot that had ESPN.

Auburn whacked the Wildcats, 41-14, and I enjoyed a few Samuel Adams Honey Porters during the contest. I wasn’t in my best shape on Friday morning but it was time to knock out a handful of calls and settle in, somewhere in Western New Hampshire or Eastern Vermont, for the weekend.

I finished work just south of Hanover, NH which is the home of Dartmouth College. Dartmouth, as you may well know, is a member of the Ivy League.

Well, Dartmouth was playing Fordham the next day AND there was a balloon festival nearby in Vermont. The hotels in the area were full. Great planning, Bird!

I did manage to wrangle a room at a Howard Johnson, across the river from Hanover, in White River Junction, VT. Whew!

So, Saturday morning rolls around and I opt out of the balloon festival, which began at daylight, and chose to spend the bulk of my day at the football game between the Big Green of Dartmouth and the Rams of Fordham.

IMG_2254Do they tailgate in the Ivy League, I wondered? Yes they do! I arrived at the campus well before kickoff and began to circle a parking lot when I spotted a group of Dartmouth fans literally gathered around the rear of a very nice SUV. I rolled down the passenger window of my blue Saturn sedan and shouted greetings to the nattily-garbed crew.

They encouraged me to park and join them at their tailgate. I did.

Well folks, you have never met more hospitable group of fans in Athens, Oxford or Knoxville. They shared hors d’oeuvres, some of which their guest from Lower Alabama had never enjoyed previously, and wine with me. We also talked a little football and I was allowed to share with them a little about Auburn University, her family and our beloved Tigers.

What a beautiful day for football it was! Early October in New England is peak fall foiliage season and the reds, golds, oranges and purples were absolutely brilliant! I was actually able to stroll around the field! Try that in the SEC! I even gathered the Big Green cheerleaders together and they happily posed for a picture!IMG_2255

I don’t even remember who won the football game. But I do remember it as one of those days that you look back on and smile as you recall the special time you had, as well as the people and place that made it possible.

Go Big Green!

Auburn vs. Ole Miss – 2012

We rolled into Memphis late Friday afternoon before this game, which was scheduled to kickoff before noon on Saturday. To say Auburn was struggling in 2012 would be an understatement. But we were going to spend two nights in the land of Elvis, Sun and Stax records, and have a big time in The Grove.

After settling into our hotel we decided to walk down to The Peabody hotel, have a beverage and watch the famous ducks do their thing. The lobby was packed with tourists and football fans from both Auburn and Ole Miss. There were also a few other Tigers from Memphis enjoying the spectacle.

When the show was over there were two Rebel fans that grabbed us as we walked past them. They welcomed us warmly, gave us their contact information, and invited us to tailgate with them on Saturday.

Mercy! We had to get up early, after an evening of revelry on Beale St., to make the tailgate in plenty of time before this SEC early game. We left Tennessee and made our way toward the land of Faulkner and Vaught not too darn long after dawn. We even encountered two ‘working girls’ stumbling along right in the middle of Lamar Avenue. Mercy deux!

We found a parking slot within a stone’s throw of campus and headed for the famous Grove. As we made our way through the maze of tents, a kindly Southern Gentleman stepped from the cover of his group’s spot, shook my hand and said, “Y’all look thirsty.” I responded that indeed we were.

He pointed us in the direction of two lawn chairs and introduced us to the bartender of this aggregation. This gentleman inquired as to our drink of choice and I replied that I would let him surprise us.

While we watched this fellow ably concoct some cocktails, we marveled at the setup. There were sets of tents arranged three or four across and three or four deep, cases of liquor and beer stacked three or four high, and a buffet that would rival that of any good restaurant.

It wasn’t long before the couple we met at The Peabody, the night before, arrived, and we had no idea that this was also their tailgate and their friends. We were just taking up some kind Rebels on their offer of hospitality.

IMG_0571Very shortly, yet another Ole Miss gentleman came up to us and asked if we had tickets. We told him yes, but he asked again if we were sure and thrust two tickets toward me. I politely declined his generous offer and thanked him profusely.

It then occurred to me to get some pictures of this amazing gathering. Melodye asked me to corral the bartender and she would snap a photo of us.
We put our arms around each other, smiled, and just before my bride snapped the picture, our newly found friend shouted, “War Eagle!” I grinned broadly and responded with a resounding, “Hotty Toddy!”

The Times They Are a Changin’

“Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’ or
you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a changin’”

These words from Robert Zimmerman (Bobby Dylan to you and me) certainly ring true today, as they did, exactly fifty years ago, when this record was released. And that, most definitely, applies to the college football landscape.

From the AP and UPI poll systems, to the BCS, to the College Football Playoff, things have evolved dramatically in NCAA football. And THAT is an understatement.

From “three yards and a cloud of dust” to the HUNH (Hurry Up No Huddle), our father’s football is now almost unrecognizable. But don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that is a bad thing. Remember, at one time there was no forward pass. Can you imagine the furor when that change came into play?

Four years prior to Dylan’s release of “The Time’s They Are A Changin’”, I began my immersion into sports. EVERY sport. I could not get enough of sports back in 1961 and for many, many years there after.

I have now lost a great deal of my passion for professional athletics, although the Mantle and Maris home run chase of 1961 remains somewhat fresh in my mind. But I have not lost one iota of enthusiasm for college football. If anything, the love of that sector of sports, has grown in leaps and bounds. And it is quite humbling for me to find myself both writing and podcasting about that great game today. That was always a dream for me.

All of this sparked my thinking about what has become the FBS and how its current state might appear to those coaches of yesteryear. It also piqued my interest in how those coaches’ tenures compare to those of today.

I took the numbers of six legendary figures and matched them against all of the coaches who followed them at their respective institutions. I ranked them in order of the original coaches winning percentage.

1. Paul “Bear” Bryant – University of Alabama – 1958-1982
232-46-9 .824
9 coaches since – 273-122-1 .690

2. Johnny Vaught – University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) – 1947-1970 and 1973
190-61-12 .745
10 coaches since – 256-243-4 .512

3. Vince Dooley – University of Georgia – 1964-1988 – 201-77-10 .715
3 coaches since – 222-101-0 .687

4. Frank Broyles – University of Arkansas – 1958-1976 – 144-58-5 .708
10 coaches since – 276-178-3 .607

5. Charles “Cholly Mac”- McClendon – Louisiana State University – 1962-1979
137-59-7 .692
9 coaches since 276-144-6 .654

6. Ralph “Shug” Jordan – Auburn University – 1951-1975 – 176-83-6 .6754
7 coaches since 315-150-6 .6751

Four of the “legendary” head men coached at their one school for 25 years. One piloted his school for 19 years and one roamed the sidelines for 18 years at his institution of higher learning.

The one big thing that jumped out at me is that NONE of these great universities has had a winning percentage, as high as the “legendary” coach, with all of the coaches that followed him… COMBINED! ZERO. NADA.

Now boys and girls, that includes some very good coaches at each and every one of these schools. Nick Saban coached at both LSU and Alabama. Pat Dye coached at Auburn. Lou Holtz coached at Arkansas. David Cutcliffe coached at Ole Miss and Mark Richt is currently the head man at Georgia.

How about this? You have 6 of the greatest coaches of all-time who coached a total of 137 years between them. On the other hand, you have 48 coaches who coached a total of 202 years. NOW hold on! That gives the 6 coaches an average tenure of 22.8 years apiece while the remaining 48 guys averaged 4.2 years each!!!

As the former voice of Ole Miss football in the 60’s, Stan Torgenson, was known to exclaim… Hoo Hoooooo MERCY!!!

Obviously, some of these latter coaches held their positions for extremely short periods of time. Bill “Brother” Oliver was the interim coach at Auburn, in 1998, for 5 games. John L. Smith had the same position at Arkansas for 12 games and Mike Price of Alabama… well you know the story there.

So, sports fans, where does this leave us? One one hand, you can talk about “the good ole days”, simpler times, loyalty, and the like.

Conversely, one can speak of the demand to “turn it around quickly”, the huge number of demands on a coach’s time, social media, and all that goes with being a CEO of the mega-corporaate structure that is FBS football in the 21st century.

But, regardless of all this, there is one undeniable thread that weaves its way throughout the history of college football… WINNING. “Just win, baby” as, now deceased, Oakland Raiders owner, Al Davis, was oft-quoted.

Winning does “soothe the savage beast” that is today’s college football fan, but just for a bit. That fan wants to win today, tomorrow and forever. That fan also wants to win big and with style. And that winning includes having the best facilities possible.

So, what would I say to today’s young and eager, prospective college football coaches, if I had them as an audience? To those coaches whose tenure at a school might, possibly, fall into the 4.2 years average that was mentioned above?

My answer might go something like this…

“Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’ or
you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a changin’”